There's this distinctly sweaty, skidmark-type smell that astroturf gets when it's hot outside. It reminds me of summer soccer camp where the field would get so hot you couldn't wear black cleats or else your feet would burn.
The sun beat down at the Reign FC's practice in Tacoma yesterday; that warm turf smell stinging my nostrils. Megan Rapinoe, the team's most popular player and star of the 2019 Women's World Cup, showed up for practice in the last 10 minutes. In a practice kit (but no cleats) and with a protein shake in hand, Rapinoe ambled over to the injured player's bench.
She won't be playing in the Reign's World Cup almost sold-out homecoming game on Sunday.
"I’m not going to be playing on Sunday. I feel terrible, just exhausted in general," Rapinoe said at a press conference Wednesday. She was wearing a shirt that said "Kisses" in hot pink and Gucci sliders with lions on them. "I’ll definitely be there smiling and kissing babies and stuff. I’m looking forward to the match and welcoming back all the players who played in the World Cup and spent so much time getting ready to perform on the world’s biggest stage."
Rapinoe is only one of the Reign's eight World Cup players. Allie Long also played on the U.S. Women's National Team (USWNT) and famously ate a literal page of the team's gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation during the team's ticker-tape parade in NYC (she told me it tasted like salad but with really good dressing). There's also Rosie White (New Zealand), Jodie Taylor (England), Rumi Utsugi (Japan), Steph Catley (Australia), Rebecca Quinn (Canada), and Celia Jiménez Delgado (Spain).
This was the biggest World Cup all of them had ever experienced. Quinn said that "countries are improving so much in between World Cups that there’s no gap between countries anymore." She attributes that to "how much is being invested into women’s soccer and hopefully how much will continue to be invested."
The fight for pay equity and the World Cup coverage co-mingled during the month of soccer. They had raised the conversation to the mainstream. So, now what?
"I don’t think it’s our responsibility to keep the conversation going more than we already have," Rapinoe answered bluntly. "I don’t think we can bring it to a higher level than we already have especially during the World Cup. It should be everybody else’s responsibility to invest in women’s sports and women’s programs."
She added: "But of course we’ll continue to talk about it everywhere and all the time. With women's sports, this is always part of the conversation."
Long agreed. "We need people in the stands but we need more corporate sponsorship pouring into the game," she said. She told an anecdote about how people she met still didn't know that Washington had a team. "We need to be marketed better."
She was right. The Reign relocated earlier this year after becoming stadium-less in Seattle. Now in Tacoma, they practice on a high school field and play in a baseball stadium. There are plans to create a state-of-the-art soccer stadium in Tacoma for the Reign and Tacoma's men's team, the Tacoma Defiance. Long called that plan what "every women's soccer player dreams of."
In the press conference, it was apparent that many of the media did not know much about Reign FC and were just there to chase the post-World Cup hype. The interviews with the non-USWNT players wrapped up quickly after one or two questions. They were punctuated with awkward silence and a nervous press person asking for more questions.
But this could be the turning point.
The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) has been in season since April. It didn't stop during the World Cup when star players from across the league went to compete in France for the U.S. or for their home countries. The Reign (currently in fifth place) will have its first home game since the tournament on Sunday against the fourth-place Chicago Red Stars. Their line-up is made up of Australian sensation and NWSL top-scorer Sam Kerr as well as USWNT midfielder Julie Ertz and USWNT goalie Alyssa Naeher.
#TBT Not since the Bicentennial season of the Tides has Tacoma's Cheney Stadium been packed with 7,000 or more soccer fans, but such a scene awaits Sunday when #ReignFC hosts Chicago. (And, yes, that looks like Whitey Craggs, the man in black). pic.twitter.com/lT0nmyE9DR
— WA Legends of Soccer (@WA_Legends) July 25, 2019
Fans of the USWNT have flocked to games in the weeks since the World Cup. The team, filled with household names and big personalities like Rapinoe and Alex Morgan (who plays for the Orlando Pride), have carried the fervor of the tournament across the Atlantic and to local stadiums. On Wednesday night, 22,329 fans filled Portland's Providence Park stadium seats for the Portland Thorn's World Cup homecoming game. It was the largest attendance in club history, according to The Oregonian. Also, I'm including this clip because THIS IS INSANE:
The future of women's soccer rests on our support of our local NWSL teams. Sure, come for the Rapinoes but stay for the rest.